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Why Lakshadweep is an archipelago in climate crisis

Without help and cooperation, Lakshadweep's residents could well face the prospect of becoming climate refugees

A view of the Kavaratti lighthouse.
A view of the Kavaratti lighthouse. (Courtesy: NCF)

For a part of India so long used to being overlooked by the national media, it has been strange to witness the Lakshadweep Islands feature prominently in the news over the past few weeks.

Political turmoil is not something one readily associates with the Lakshadweep, habituated as it is to a calm and peaceful (if somewhat distant) existence since its formal induction as a Union territory in 1956.

Also read: Climate Change Tracker: South India may face intense flooding every year due to global warming

Following the recent appointment of a new administrator and his introduction of certain unpopular laws and reforms which are being met with vociferous protests locally, the Lakshadweep is finding itself in the rather unfamiliar position of being subject to prolific coverage in the national and international media.

But there is another issue more significant for the Lakshadweep: The very real, very rapidly growing problem of climate change.

For those who haven’t been privy to the Lakshadweep media crash course over the past few weeks, here is a brief primer: The Lakshadweep Islands are an archipelago of coral atolls situated about 400km off India’s south-western coast. The chain includes 10 inhabited islands surrounded by an assortment of uninhabited islands, attached islets, sand banks, submerged and open reefs. Despite collectively forming India’s smallest Union territory with a total land area of barely 32 sq. km, the islands house over 70,000 people, making them one of the country’s most highly populated regions by density.

Since independence, the islands have never experienced political, social and economic disturbances of the kind they are currently embroiled in. But this doesn’t mean they haven’t been vulnerable to natural disturbances from the waters that surround them.

A ship waits at the Kavaratti Jetty as a family looks on.
A ship waits at the Kavaratti Jetty as a family looks on. (Courtesy: NCF)

The Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), which has been working in Lakshadweep since 1996, has shown how the continued habitability of the archipelago is inextricably linked to the reefs surrounding each island, since these reefs ensure protection from storms, reduce coastal erosion and help secure freshwater resources. However, rising sea surface temperatures, frequent El Niño-related coral mortalities and three storms—Ockhi, Maha and the very recent Tauktae—in the last four years have ensured the reefs protecting the islands have undergone a severe battering. The decline of the reefs represents a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem function. At present rates, it will take over 30 years without another major climate change disturbance for complete recovery in the Lakshadweep, an unrealistic expectation, given the frequency with which intense climate anomalies are increasing. Climate change is severely threatening the habitability of the fragile archipelago, within the time scales of a single generation. As things stand, the islanders face the ignominy of becoming India’s first climate refugees.

While the government seems determined to push its development agenda on the islands at any cost, the islanders are protesting to continue with the current way of island life.

Neither of these paths can be considered sustainable as they both originate in a dangerous attitude of climate blindness long prevalent among key decision makers in the administration and the community. This attitude has not only inadvertently led to the fostering of ecological complacency and management paralysis but also allowed these local decision makers to justify inaction in the face of unrestrained resource-use shifts, which is further threatening the ecological resilience of the islands.

Solving an issue like climate change necessitates that a third path be found. Such a path needs to actively make climate change a visible and identifiable cause around which community leaders and institutions can rally as a crucial part of local conversations and decision-making in the coming years. It requires both the pro-government and pro-community parties to realize that a battle for the future of Lakshadweep can only take place if there is a battlefield to fight on in the first place.

Fishing boats in the Kavaratti lagoon.
Fishing boats in the Kavaratti lagoon. (Courtesy: NCF)

The principal conservation challenge here is to make climate change tangible and relevant to human survival in order to organise island communities in becoming climate resilient.

Lakshadweep was fortunate to remain the only Indian territory to not register a single covid case all through 2020. That has changed now. With the virus spreading rapidly in this protected territory from January this year, already stringent entry restrictions have become considerably tighter, meaning travelling to the islands and doing community work there has become increasingly difficult.

Solving an issue like climate change doesn’t seem too different from solving an issue like covid. The pandemic has reminded us that anything can be conquered, or at least gamely fought against, if there is cooperation between a government and the people it governs. Again, we believe this cooperation can be brought about by relentlessly transmitting the right information. This is the crux of the proposed third path: communicating deeply, and cooperating selflessly in the face of climate change.

Also read: The global ocean heated up to record levels in 2020

But how do you spread awareness in a community or engage in a sustained dialogue with stake-holders if you cannot reach them? Ingenuity has to be relied upon and a different way of communicating has to be found. This different way could be realized through the completion of a Central government project, announced on Independence Day 2020, to provide Lakshadweep high-speed internet through the laying of an undersea optical fibre cable link within the next three years. When this happens, the islands will receive an essential and long overdue service.

A distant view of Bitra island.
A distant view of Bitra island. (Courtesy: NCF)

In a post-covid world, being able to leverage the power of the internet—through distribution of creative content via social media, apps and websites—in order to spread the message of climate change in this distant island chain could prove critical.

Lakshadweep’s salvation cannot lie anymore in its isolation. On the contrary, it needs to lie in building greater connection. More needs to be known about the islands. More information needs to be circulated, not just about the Lakshadweep but also to and from the Lakshadweep, and the issues facing the islanders need to be discussed more widely. The introduction of the internet could be a force multiplier in this regard, enabling the spread of not only the climate change message, but also ensuring the islands occupy more space in national consciousness.

Over the past few weeks, despite the glut of negative news around the islands, it has been heartening to see people across the political spectrum voicing their concern for Lakshadweep’s well-being. The efforts to #savelakshadweep definitely need to intensify. But they need to be in the right direction: not through hastily introduced laws and projects or through protests against them, but by redirecting these energies towards cooperating and collectively overcoming the more perilous reality of climate change that currently threatens the habitability of the archipelago.

Somesh Menon works with the Oceans and Coasts Programme at Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). To know more about birds and nature, Join The Flock, a free newsletter on birds and nature awareness.

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